Friday, December 04, 2020

Vikings in Brittany (Part 1)

Replica Viking boat at Pont l'Abbé

Here in Brittany the image of the Vikings has undergone what has become a familiar sea-change, from bloodthirsty sadists to high-spirited entrepreneurs. What is certain, however, is that they insinuated themselves into the Breton/Frankish power struggles like a ragged cross stitch for a hundred years, often acting in temporary alliance with one side or the other. The initial hit-and-run marauding in search of booty and adventure became over time a more complex mixture of power and land seeking. Most important of all for the development of Brittany, there is no doubt that their activities between 840 and 940 had highly significant consequences for Breton identity, language and culture, striking at the very time that Brittany the political entity was in formation.

In the 830s, Nominoë, a Breton count initially acting as representative of the emperor of the Franks to keep the peace, had begun what seem to be deliberate attempts to unify Bretons against the Franks and establish distinct spheres of political and religious control. After Charles the Bald inherited the western part of the Frankish empire from Louis Le Pieux, he was soon on a collision course with Nominoë and fighting in the disputed lands of the Marches of Brittany was fairly constant, with the Bretons pressing as far east as Le Mans.

Nantes cathedral today (before recent fire)

In June 843, the Viking attack on Nantes was an explosive shock, coming nearly fifty years after the first raids further south on Noirmoutier. The fleet of 67 ships were from Norway, possibly having followed the northern route around Britain via the Shetlands and Irish sea to access the Loire estuary. Whether by luck or insider information, it took place on the feast of St Jean, as the bishop Gunhardt was celebrating mass in the cathedral. According to a later (religious) source, he was pronouncing the eucharistic prayer ‘sursum corda’ (lift up your hearts), giving a ritualistic tinge in Catholic tradition to his brutal murder at the altar. The 11th century Chronicle of Nantes gorily describes the slaughter of the congregation that ensued.

Gunhardt slaughtered at the altar

After this crippling assault, the Vikings departed with their booty. It was to be ten years before Nantes suffered a repetition, but the struggle with these ruthlessly mobile new intruders, consisting of different groups acting both jointly and independently, was only just beginning in Brittany. The Annales de Saint-Bertin record three battles fought by Nominoë against the Vikings in the year 847. The upshot was not the clear-cut victory he had hoped for and the negotiations that followed ended in the first Breton payment of danegeld to speed the Vikings’ departure. But this secured only the briefest lull in hostilities and the true scale of the threat could not yet be measured. TO BE CONTINUED....


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